Contractors weigh in on new immigration bill
September 5, 2006
Colorado’s new immigration laws are starting to cause a stir among businessmen in the valley. For contractor Mark Gould, one bill in particular could mean the loss of about a quarter of his workforce.
Since House Bill 1343 took effect Aug. 7, Gould is now required to certify that he has no illegal workers on his payroll. The law applies to contractors working on projects for cities, counties, school districts and other governmental agencies.
According to the law, new workers must be checked through a Pilot Program, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security. The program links employers to an online database that checks names against Social Security numbers to determine if the number is valid.
“We’ve been told (the database) is only 80 percent correct,” Gould said.
Gould Construction employs about 100 people, many of them unskilled laborers, many of them Hispanic immigrants. About half his contracts are with local governments.
Although Gould said his company checks people’s documents as a condition of employment to make sure they are legal immigrants, it’s a matter of simple math to realize that many of them are probably living in this country illegally.
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According to Denver’s Bell Policy Center, in 2004 there were 435,000 foreign born immigrants in the state. Gould estimates there are about 250,000 who are here illegally.
“As you walk down the street one of every two immigrants is illegal,” he said. “This is not rocket science.”
He has already seen the fallout from the bill.
Currently the company has 10 openings, and only three people have applied. Hispanics are not applying, Gould said.
“If you listen to (congressman and anti-illegal immigration advocate) Tom Tancredo, he wants to send 250,000 people back home. Congressman Tancredo says employers are employing illegals when there are legal workers standing in line,” Gould said.
If Tancredo, R-Colo., has his way – and HB 1343 could go a long way to making that happen – businesses like Gould’s, hotels in Aspen and Vail, landscapers around the valley and others would be hard put to find employees.
Gould pays $14 an hour as starting pay. At that rate, a worker who puts in the usual 50-hour week and who makes time-and-a-half in overtime will get $770 a week. That’s good pay for unskilled labor, but still Gould would be hamstrung without Hispanics applying for those positions.
American kids are finishing high school and going on to skilled jobs.
“Kids are trained on computers, they don’t want to dig a ditch,” Gould said.
“What’s going to happen to our economy if those workers go home? It would mean the loss of about a quarter of the excavators, laborers, masons, concrete workers, landscapers, roofers, drywallers and insulators in the valley,” he said.
“So far business has been silent, they’re assuming no politician would hurt the economy to make their constituency happy, but that’s just what they’ve done.”
Gould, representing the Colorado Contractor’s Association, was part of a round-table discussion with Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs Monday, Aug. 28. The secretary was there to gather comments about President Bush’s proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, including a guest worker program.
Businesses are also keeping their heads down and not speaking out about the new immigration laws because they’re fearful they’ll attract the attention of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Gould said.
Another Glenwood Springs contractor and former state representative, Gregg Rippy, agrees HB 1343 is flawed, although it will have less effect on his business. Rippy’s government contracts account for about 35 percent of his business.
What the law is likely to do is drive contractors away from government projects and exclusively into the private sector, he said.
“You look at the level of work in the valley and why would you bid a city job when there is plenty of private work,” he said.
That will also mean higher bids from contractors bidding on government contracts and higher construction costs. Contractors who do bid on government jobs will build in the cost of going through the process mandated by HB 1343.
Colorado should have waited for federal legislation to be put in place before passing its own immigration reform law, Gould said.
Any immigration reform should include a provision for a guest worker program that would allow employers to go to Mexico, for example, to choose workers and check their medical background and whether or not they have a criminal record. Most importantly, Gould said, foreign workers need to have biometric identification that contains individual and unforgeable markers such as fingerprints or eye scans.
Gould is now in the process of applying for 15 H2B temporary work visas for his employees. But this avenue of filling the need for unskilled workers is hampered by the U.S. State Department, which grants only 33,000 such visas annually for the entire country.
“We have 7 million workers in the construction industry in the U.S., and we project we’ll need 180,000 new workers annually for the next 10 years – that’s 1.8 million,” Gould said. “That’s just our industry, not hospitality or tourism. This economy would be toast if we lost (immigrant) workers.”